Archive for June, 2011


Sunday, June 26th, 2011

Seven-foot wide sunflower -- street painting by Bob Diven.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Dick van Dyke, My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business” by Dick Van Dyke and “Let Me Go” by Helga Schneider

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

I wondered if I shouldn’t review these two books for the reason of being a bit too “off topic” for this blog.  Not being able to completely resolve that question, I’ll keep it short.

Dick Van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins. Probably his fault I make street paintings.

I’ve always been a Dick Van Dyke fan, and felt that beyond Mary Poppins and The Dick Van Dyke Show, he had never been placed in the right vehicle for his talents.  His autobiography “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business” proves me partly right, partly wrong.  The book is an enjoyable travelogue of his work life, with frequent references to his family that (revealingly, I think) don’t include much detail.  He promises at the front of the book “No dirt”, and takes a sort of pollyanna-ish tone throughout, but then, he clearly made an effort to lead his idea of a moral life.  And he largely succeeded, though one can sense the stories that are left untold.  In short: this is a man who was born to perform.  Every bone in his body ached for it, and fortune smiled upon him with some good breaks at important times.

Learning more about the man behind the performer did not, in this case, deepen my affection for him.  But neither did it diminish the performances and presence of the Dick Van Dyke that I treasure.

The rev gives it three out of four Dimetrodons!





If Dick Van Dyke’s book is coy, Helga Schneider’s “Let Me Go” is open-heart surgery where we are close enough to hold a retractor.  Her recounting of the several hours of her last visit with her mother in an Austrian nursing home is like a first-person narrative from the mongoose battling a cobra for its life.

Schneider and her younger brother were abandoned by her mother in 1941 so that her mother could pursue her ambition to rise up in her work with the SS in Germany, work which led her to be a guard at Nazi work and extermination camps.  Her mother, it turns out, is the kind of woman we imagine the cold, cruel death camp matron would be.  Except that here we get to sit in on her interrogation by a daughter left wounded by the abandonment and the later discovery of what her mother left her family for. (Her mother was in the thick of it, to be sure)  The aged woman we meet in this memoir, slipping in and out of dementia, is a frightening figure: unrepentant, nostalgic and manipulative to the last.

But the story is not all the mother’s, for little Helga and her brother were among a group of children hustled into Hitler’s bunker in bomb-ravaged, crumbling Berlin for a propaganda photo-op.  It is a tale of two Germanys, two generations, told with a searing honesty by a woman with a unique dual-perspective on the effects Hitler’s war on her country and family.

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!





t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Great Cosmic Elephant” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

There is the old saw about two blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling it with their hands — one standing in the front, the other at the rear end —  and how by their descriptions both would think they were examining a completely different animal!  To stretch that analogy, I think that each of us, in a very real way, are only able to describe the part of the “elephant” of life that we are touching, in that each of our lives is so very specific in circumstance, opportunity, and geography that our perception of reality is destined to be incomplete: we can never hope to have the complete picture, as it were.  And yet the blind men at different ends of the elephant — though one may be feeling a trunk and another a…tail — will still be describing some elements that are common to both ends of a single animal.  This is why we can, for instance, enjoy art and literature from people who are living lives very different from our own: we are each having our own unique experience of a universal experience: life.

I’ll stretch the analogy a bit further, and describe science as the attempt to “see” every part of the “elephant” by examining the tiniest bits of it — and then adding all of those bits together with the most distant perspectives we can get — to form a complete picture.  I think this is a noble thing.  I think the problem comes in when people who are touching only their square inches of the great cosmic pachyderm think that they are touching the entire thing, and dismiss the very idea that there are different perspectives.

I’ve noticed that when I write opinion pieces for the local newspaper, I write to a different audience.  I write more like a missionary — as if I’m talking to the uninformed.  Here, I write more like I’m writing to colleagues, companions on this journey that have joined themselves into a loosely-organized caravan headed in roughly the same direction.  When I write for the paper, I get a load of comments from those that think their square inch of elephant is the whole thing.  They are clearly annoyed at me for wanting them to think otherwise.

But i happen to be the kind of person that derives pleasure from the way I’ve grown to think about things.  I enjoy ideas, and the way my brain has turned out to be a curious one, moving from thought to thought like a bumble bee from flower to flower, gathering pollen as it goes.

For instance, while eating some strawberries, my mind wandered to the following subjects: a recognition that the golf ball sized berries I was eating were most certainly the product of unnatural selection by human breeders; that there were millions of people on this earth who would give just about anything to be able to sit and eat the berries I was eating in quiet and safety; a pang of guilt over my excesses of consumption (treating myself to an entire pint of strawberries); a musing over the question of human compassion, all while still managing to fully enjoy those berries.

I am an extremely lucky human, by any historical measure.  I may be low-income by contemporary American standards, but the fact that I have a comfortable place to lay my head in peace each night and a pretty high degree of freedom from fear instantly separates me from most of my ancestors and many humans alive today.

My Ice Age brain struggles with the demands of modern knowledge.  How do I adjust my naturally-evolved sense of blood-relation compassion to an entire human family?  How do I satisfy my social-animal need to see myself as a good person when that is always in tension with my inherently selfish survival instinct?  How do I enjoy the ripe strawberry in front of me knowing that I could give up some of what I own and make lives much worse than mine exponentially better, or — to take it further — give up everything I own and not put a dent in the human suffering on the planet?  How do I pay attention to the part of the elephant I can touch without being overwhelmed by the other parts of the vast animal that I hear about, but can never completely explore myself?

This is the condition of the modern human, complicated by the technology and science-aided awareness of our time.

Is that my goat? Click image for Heifer International.

There is no complete answer to it.  I donate a enough money Heifer International (it’s not much) to buy a goat a year for someone I’ll never meet.   Why?  To lessen feelings of selfishness generated by my sense of good fortune and abiding happiness.  And I endeavor to blend the work that satisfies me with work that brings pleasure and solace to my fellow humans.  In short, I practice a sort of reciprocal altruism that we humans have developed over the millennia.  I don’t give because I expect something back from those to whom I give (such as a shipment of home-made goat cheese from Indonesia or wherever), but I do give because I know that it will make me a happier person.  For we learn from experience that the satisfying of a craving or lust is not what creates a state of happiness (for the consummation of a craving is much more about alleviating the extreme discomfort of the craving).  No: we learn that the more abiding sense of happiness comes from what we call “generous” or “kind” behavior, in that it waters the seeds of warm social relationships (and we humans are wired to be all about social relationships).

In practical terms, to be quite honest, I find myself testing the limits of how far I can go in getting what I want while maintaining my cherished place in my social family —  my community.  The paradox being that if I give more than others, I am held in higher esteem, and may then have more opportunity for getting what I want.  But if I want something that carries a high social risk, I am faced with getting right back to where I started if I actually take advantage of my opportunities.  Interesting this (and, it turns out, one of the main arguments against human morality being a Heavenly mandate — the entire dynamic that keeps the non-sociopathic in line is right here in our human troop).

This is what life is like: a mix of competing needs, desires, pressures and satisfactions that takes a massive, calorie-consuming brain such as ours to keep track of.  But there I am again, talking about the whole elephant.

There is a certain comfort in recognizing the reality that we live in.  At least to me there is (even if understanding just how complex our social interactions are does nothing to make them less complicated!)

Thanks to science, we now understand a great deal about how our individual lives fit within the scheme of the larger life that surrounds us (the elephant).  We also understand a great deal more about our individual minds, bodies and personalities (the part of the elephant we touch, taste, smell, hear and see).  This bounty of information challenges the comprehensive power of our primate brains, even as it challenges our evolved blood-kin centered compassion.  Accepting this reality may not make things less challenging or complex, but it can help us enjoy the sweet strawberries that life sets before us as we keep exploring our bit of the cosmic elephant.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, June 19th, 2011

"Life's a Beach" Street painting by Bob Diven




Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Spending a few days in Denver on a project, I stopped in to revisit some museums in the area.

Now THAT’S a dinosaur!

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is quite a museum, with a blend of old and new exhibits.  Right now they are hosting the touring Pirates exhibit that was in Chicago when I was last there.  I skipped that, walked past the mummies and the spectacular wildlife dioramas and ran straight to the dinosaurs, of course.  The new addition I noticed there was a spectacular video depicting early Earth, from shortly after its formation through a few hot and cold cycles, or roughly until life began.  I stood and watched it several times.  Mesmerizing.  The exhibit does a nice job of describing evolution and early life, ending with a spookily-realistic sculpture of Lucy, our ancestor.  Be sure to find your way to the observation deck that looks out over Denver, and look for Gary Staab’s new (and massive) Brachiosaurus sculpture that is rearing up on its hind legs next to the parking garage.  Another new feature is an ongoing dig in Snowmass, Colorado, where a treasure trove of Pleistocene fossils are being uncovered.  It’s called The Snowmastodon Project, and despite a labored attempt to make this the “Knut” of the museum marketing world, it’s a very exciting project that can be followed on-line!

The Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum is located on the old Lowry Air Force Base grounds, and features a squeaky-clean hangar populated with some interesting birds (a B-1 Bomber and an X-Wing fighter from Star Wars, for example).  It’s a nice museum, with a room dedicated to the history of the Colorado Air National Guard (that has been flying as a unit since 1923).

Down the highway is the Pueblo Wiesbrod Aircraft Museum, which is packed with the history of the B-24 bombers that flew there in WW2.  The most impressive feature here is the B-29 Superfortress inside the first hangar.  Wow.  Not a bad medium-sized air museum, if you’re in the neighborhood.

The last Denver museum I visited was The Denver Art Museum.  But, to be honest, I only dashed in there to lay eyes upon my favorite painting in their collection (“Childhood Idyll”: by William Adolphe Bouguereau).  I hadn’t been in there since they opened the brand new building that is now the main entrance and, frankly, it gave the impression of more building than any museum could handle.  The older part of the museum seems to have remained much as it was, which is good, I think, with the newer part being reserved for changing exhibitions, large and small.  Denver has a habit, I’ve noticed, of rather self-consciously trying to build itself into major city status through architecture and impossible-to-avoid huge public sculpture, and the new museum building fits in this scheme.  Having said that, it’s a nice art museum that is currently displaying a fine collection of contemporary western landscapes, some of which I found mesmerizing and moving (“Western Horizons: Landscapes from the Contemporary Realism Collection” Through October 21).

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “There is No God, Yet God Exists” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

I remember the pointed rebuke from many a preacher that proclaimed that the great sin of modern man is that he makes himself God.   Meaning that “New Age” beliefs, or the dreaded “Secular Humanism” are guilty of elevating Man above God, where Man’s desires are made King, and the Devil dances a jig of victorious delight.

But it turns out that Man is God after all, but not in the way the preachers feared.  No, it’s much worse than that, and also not bad at all.  It simply is.

The person we come to know as God is, and has always been, the part of our own consciousness with which we are able to converse (more specifically, the part that talks back to us.)  This is why it can feel like we’re talking to a real person when we “pray”.  (Because, well, we are!)

Blasphemy of blasphemies, I am denying the existence of God!  Don’t be silly.

I am actually affirming the existence of God, for that person that we address exists, no doubt about it.  It’s you.  It’s me.

Now the actual essence of what the preacher thinks is that we non-believers are taking a part of our earthly selves and replacing the God of the Universe with it and, basically, acting too big for our (lowly) britches (and insulting God to boot.)

This, of course, assumes the existence of an actual, physical, all encompassing God.  Such a God may or may not exist, but considering the rather impressive plasticity and agility of our own consciousness, there is little in the way of “spiritual” phenomenon that requires any further external personage (other than our own differing levels of consciousness and perception) for its explanation.

So here’s the funny part in all of this:  As is ever the case (it seems) the preacher is accusing another of his own crime, for it turns out to be him that has made himself (literally) God.  For isn’t that what he does?  He talks to his own consciousness, his consciousness answers him back (from within his own skull) and he proclaims his own murmurs to be the words of God!

Now I don’t want to be too hard on him, for these sort of fictions are very useful to us humans who — being as social as we are — have a hard time acting solely from our own desires.  Therefore it can be useful to have “better” reasons to not go with this person to that event, or some such.  So having the ability to say “I’ll need to pray about that”, can be a more feather-smoothing way to say “I don’t want to do that, but I need to find a way to get out of if that doesn’t damage our relationship, which I may well need in the future.”  (I’ve made that sound more crass than it needs to be, but you get the point).

I could sum this all up by saying: There is no literal God, even though the thing we humans have always known as God does, in fact, exist.  And although it seems a huge disappointment to find that the actual God is not all we thought him (generally him) to be, the real God can survive the disappointment and turns out to be completely unchanged by the ordeal and can, in fact, continue functioning as before with no diminishment in his — or her, or its — capacities.

For God’s capacities (or “powers”) have always been limited, if we are honest with ourselves.  How many prayers have really been answered?  Some, to be sure, in seemingly remarkable ways.  But our minds are tuned to noticing most the outcomes that confirm our beliefs (a tendency called “confirmation bias”), and we are top-notch magical thinkers, which is a huge help in keeping the idea of an external, autonomous God alive.

This is who and what we are.  I’ve come to realize and accept this.  Which brings me to the odd place of agreeing with every believer in God, or at least finding no solid intellectual grounds for telling anyone that they have made up their entire experience of God.  Of course they haven’t.  And, of course they have.  If you get my meaning.

There is no God, yet God exists.
There is no Heaven above.

There is no God, yet God exists,
In the hearts of those who love.

There is no God, yet God exists,
We pray to our own buried soul.

There is no God, yet God exists,
Ever just beyond our control.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, June 12th, 2011

"Anonymous Gothic" (after Grant Wood). Street painting by Bob Diven.

SERMON: “Dog Paddling Across a Sea of Ignorance” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

I heard a writer interviewed on Christian radio today who was talking quite frankly (for Christian radio) about the differences between male and female sexual response (in humans, I should say).  She said they were different in every imaginable way, and that the first question she was going to ask God (when she met Him in Heaven) was “…why he designed us so differently”.

The refreshing aspect of this radio interview was the recognition by this writer of certain biological realities (brought to light, no doubt, by careful scientific research).  The troubling aspect is the intellectual contortions that were required to torture these realities into an acceptable religious framework.  It made me think that one of the major requirements of religious belief is this constant reshaping of reality to belief, or belief to reality.  (Or perhaps this is really a second-level process of religious belief, to be incorporated only after outright denial has failed to keep reality at bay).

As I was enjoying these thoughts, it was natural to next challenge them as unfair and simplistic, and to therefore look for ways in which this sort of intellectual remodeling is not just limited to religion.

It is a feature of human consciousness to construct narratives about our lives, both large and small.  We seek cause behind every event that surprises us — that doesn’t fit within our understanding of “reality”.  God, it turns out, is a really, really useful device for this, for He can be generous one moment, stern the next, silent for long periods or too mysterious for our lowly, earthly minds to comprehend.  Perfect.

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

But we don’t have to harbor belief in a literal God to make use of his (or her, or its) services.  We often toss out a phrase like “it was meant to be” when something has occurred that appears (from our limited perspective) to be fortuitous.  (Never mind that many that proclaim “I was saved for a reason” are usually describing their escape from a situation that claimed some number of other human lives, which would also, then, have to have not been spared for some equivalent “reason”).

As I’ve said before, I’m coming to realize that actual reality is so incredibly complex that there is rarely any way at all for us to fully comprehend the mixture of environment, action and biology that “makes” anything happen!

Science is the best tool we have for comprehending physical and biological reality.  But for science to be reliable, it must necessarily be narrow in its focus, meaning that each experiment must try hard to eliminate as many variables as possible in a highly-controlled environment.  This is why scientists are so circumspect in their proclamations, and why the press is always getting it wrong, pronouncing “cures” when in truth an experiment has shown that chemical compound A does this or that to cell B under these specific conditions.  Over time, of course, further experiments expand our knowledge so that we do end up knowing some things with a reliable degree of certainty.  But progress is slow and methodical, and not nearly as satisfying to a human mind that can trip more easily to a God that answers to all mystery in a much more satisfying (and immediate) way.

Now even the religious struggle with complexity, and experience periods of mental and emotional anguish as they work their way through a challenging life experience.  Often this occurs when an event comes that was “not supposed to happen” to someone who believed in God, and therefore their idea of what “can” happen to a believer is challenged and, thereby, stretched.  Religion is plastic in this way, which is one of the reasons it has survived the winnowing process of (what we could call) intellectual evolution.  Sure, belief in external and invisible intentional powers could almost be called an atavistic behavior in humans by those of us who have moved beyond it, but the very fact of religion’s ubiquity and persistence is testimony to an ancient-yet-still-satisfactory software functioning in the human consciousness.

Religious or not, we all need to make a way for ourselves in the reality of life as we experience it.  And part of that “making a way” is developing a mental construct that is able to handle the surprises and challenges of life in a fairly nimble way.  The major-brand choices on offer in this regard are generally sold as “Religion” and “Science”.  Both list their promised benefits, but not their weaknesses.  Religion points out that Science offers no consolation, and that it is therefore cold and heartless.  Science points out that Religion is based on “truths” that are unknowable and, well, “made up”, and is therefore ever at risk of causing harm to humans because of its un-moveable irrational beliefs.  In practice I think that most of us build a sort of hybrid of the two, taking what we need, as we need it, while ignoring the shrill demands from priest and researcher that the two don’t mix.  (Oil and water don’t mix either, but if you shake them enough you get Italian dressing…at least long enough to pour on your salad).

Now I’m of a different sort of mind, and have fought this idea that God must be retained as — at the very least — a receptacle for mystery.  I continue to feel that there is nothing in our experience that is not based in some physical or chemical process.  However, I have also read up enough on the current frontiers of science to be amazed at how complex actual biology and cosmology is, and have therefore become aware that my primate brain will never, ever, ever, know enough to know enough about my just my own individual life: I will die ignorant of so much that I will never even have a hint at.  But for me that does not lead back to God, and neither does it lead to an abandonment of science for not being all-knowing.  No, for me it leads to a frame of mind that accepts mystery as an acknowledgement of a vast ignorance that must ever be fed knowledge by the living with the understanding that that ignorance can only be diminished, not eliminated.

In this “mindset” there is, therefore, no shame and no false pride in being human: it is, in short, an acceptance of our reality.  After all, we’re the only animals in the game that give a shit about what’s behind it all (and on that score, maybe it’s high time the whales, dolphins, chimps and crows stopped goofing off all day, and began carrying their load of the research work!).

Unlike the writer referenced at the beginning of this sermon, we are able to understand that our sexually dimorphic traits, for example, are the products of millions of years of evolution (without having to hold the question of “why” for the afterlife).  We can appreciate the endless signs of our planet’s ancient geology that surround us without having to create tortured “Noah’s flood” explanations as to why there are petrified sea shells on top of mountains in Montana.  In short, we can skip the mental gymnastics and go straight to the delight in having eliminated one more small bit of our ignorance as we float through life on the ocean of that which we do not know.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Ever get that feeling you're being watched by an extinct species? (Another of Gary Staab's dinos))

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Obliquity. Why our goals are best achieved indirectly” by John Kay

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.” Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791, reprint, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964). p. 88

John Kay is a “leading” British economist, and his bold and bare admission of the shortcomings of his profession and the incompleteness of his own knowledge are the bracing beginning to this book.  But he takes this confession a step further, and pulls back a curtain to reveal that most economic models are created to justify decisions that have already been made at a higher corporate (or government) level.

This is not all that surprising a fact (at least not as surprising as the author’s admission of it).  And it is not the lesson of this book.  To me, this preamble performed the task of presenting the author’s credentials for presenting what was to follow: a frank discussion of the reality that economies, societies and, well, life in general, is so monumentally (and unpredictably) complex that we can never really know enough to solve any real-life problem directly.  That, in fact, we can only ever work our way through things one decision at a time, employing judgement and an ability to adapt as steps reveal themselves.

The thrilling aspect of this book is it’s embrace of reality, and a recognition of our status as evolved creatures living in a world of such complexity that it could have only been formed by billions of years of evolution and adaptation.  The lesson of this book is that we humans are ever prone to harboring the mistaken notion that we are intelligent enough to manage these evolved (and evolving, when it comes to human societies, relationships and corporations) systems.  This approach is reflected in the belief that problems are best tackled “directly”, meaning we make decisions based on a thorough understanding of all of the possible solutions, factors and outcomes.  But, of course, we can’t know all of that.  Or even much of that.  Because we must add in the fact that each decision we make re-shuffles the entire deck in ways we cannot completely account for.

So how, then, do we live?  We “muddle through”.  We reach our goals (or get close to them) by acting indirectly with “Obliquity”.

The good news is that most of us do this.  After all, we, too, have evolved to be good at adaptation.  But some of us think we’re so smart we can figure it all out (count me guilty of trying to be that guy).  The worst examples of this are the humans who think they know how to re-engineer society, or create entirely new cities, or start wars in the middle east because they have the “one big idea” that somehow our style of democracy will blossom wherever we forcibly plant it.

I remember a “Tale from Lake Woebegon”, where Garrison Keillor told a tale on himself as a young man laughing about the sad old woman he saw sitting on her porch.  He would not end up like her, he told himself.  But years later, he ends his tale with a realization that “None of us is so clever” as to be able to avoid all of the experiences of living.

And therein lies the beautiful humanity of this book.  There are truths in here that are worth reading, even if it does seem to be, at times, a primer for the over-confident economist or bureaucrat.  It might help some of us relax a bit, and turn down the heat of our calculating brain, and bring a bit of comfort and encouragement to those of us who sort of “muddle through”.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!